St. Francis football players shake off the rust on their campus in Watsonville earlier this week.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID K-12

‘It’s complicated’: Everything we learned (and didn’t learn) about high school sports re-openings Thursday

Much is still to be determined on whether high school football will stay on its current course of COVID testing and whether a more relaxed version of guidelines will come down from the state on all sports. County health officials say they are still investigating what that might look like.

Like a middle linebacker scanning the field for the next blocker or ball carrier, the head of Scotts Valley football coach/athletic director Louie Walters has remained on a swivel.

“It’s coming from all directions,” he said. “It’s relentless. It’s complicated.”

The confounding job Walters is trying to do is mirrored across the county by others sorting out the conundrum of getting high school athletes some semblance of a sports season — and normalcy.

“This is exactly what the kids need and have needed for months,” said Monte Vista Christian’s Head of School Mitchell Salerno. “We look at sports this spring as an opportunity to get them back to health — mental health, physical health, emotional health.”

COVID K-12

COVID K-12, Lookout’s overview of COVID-19’s impact on education, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic this year. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

The most recent news to process: A settlement in a case brought by high school football players in San Diego has reportedly opened the door for indoor sports to be played across California — and it could also have ramifications for whether contact sports have to perform weekly COVID testing on all players, coaches and other participants.

“We don’t know yet what that means at this time,” county health officer Gail Newel said Thursday afternoon. “So we’re abiding by current state guidance, until we hear otherwise.”

Though attorneys in San Diego said Gov. Gavin Newsom had signed off on a deal that would open the door fully to sports across California, Newsom declined to comment on it during a press conference Thursday. Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s Secretary for Health and Human Services, said updated sports guidelines would be released in the coming days.

According to the county’s read on current guidelines, the three outdoor contact sports (football, water polo and rugby) all require testing regardless of local positivity rate. And currently all Santa Cruz County football programs have either begun testing or are in the process of procuring tests via the County Office of Education.

Hula’s Island Grill has been a fixture in the community since 2006, but when the pandemic hit, they experienced...

County superintendent Faris Sabbah said he and his staff are in talks with a local provider that would administer the testing for the public schools: “We’re trying to organize that, so we can make sure students can get their weekly testing. We’re working on a relationship with a local entity.”

Whether that materializes quickly enough for the first slate of scheduled games to be played next Thursday remains a major question. Because teams can’t participate in full-contact practices until testing is in place, few will have received enough practice reps to play a game.

But as Bob Kittle, commissioner of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League, reiterated this week “Our goal all along has been just to get these kids something. Whether that’s one game, two games, whatever. We’ll take it.”

Soquel High athletic director Stu Walters said first games that were canceled would be made up at the end of the four-game schedules if possible.

The SCCAL was proactive about reassembling its original group of countywide teams for this special protracted season. By keeping play within the county it avoids having to get special dispensation from county health officials.

The non-contact sports, that don’t require testing, are off to a good start. Cross country is into its third week of competition and girls tennis got started this week as well.

What else was learned Thursday?

No spectators, but...: Athletic directors have been unclear whether spectators would be allowed at football games. Newel attempted to clarify that point Thursday by saying “observers” were OK if they were family members attending to help ensure safety at the event.

“Parents or other immediate household members may be present as observers to ensure the safety of the players,” she said. “This applies to not only competitions, but to practices as well.

Youth sports: Newel went over state guidelines that reiterate competition for youth leagues and club/travel teams must stay between teams from within Santa Cruz County unless they’ve been given special permission by county health officials. This also applies to any kind of tournament play.

Correspondent Nick Ibarra contributed to this report.